An Oath in Gold
At a nod from Uther, the guards unlocked the shackles, and Arthur slumped to the ground, half leaning on the pole, half sprawling across the ground, and Merlin could no longer find it in himself to care about the guards or protocol as he ran across the scaffold and straight to Arthur's side.
His back was a mess – well over half a dozen gashes slid across his back, all of them dripping just a bit too much blood for Merlin's comfort. And where there weren't gashes, the whip had left deep, red welts, which Merlin knew would bloom into horrific bruising by tonight.
"It's okay," Merlin murmured, as Arthur looked up at Merlin, eyes glazed over somewhat in pain. "I'm here…"
But when he was about to wring out the cloak, Arthur rasped, "No."
Merlin frowned, alarmed. "It's freezing out here-"
"Let the people see what the king has done."
It was no longer my father. It was just the king.
And that was important, even if Merlin was only half-sure how.
He nodded in reluctant agreement.
Swallowing down his objections and tears, Merlin rearranged the cloak to act like a cushion across his shoulders, and Gwen appeared, and between them, they managed to lift Arthur up, supporting their king.
Personally, Merlin thought Arthur was being a prat in refusing the cloak. Politically, though, he could see how it worked – the people gasped in shock as they all got a chance to see the damage to Arthur's back.
Uther was glaring at them both. But Arthur was smart – there was little Uther could do, now, without outright embarrassing himself.
Even in the castle, guards saluted forlornly and servants gasped and whispered among themselves as they made their way through the castle.
When an entire gaggle of servants scattered upon seeing Arthur, Merlin murmured in Arthur's ear, "Thy kingdom come."
Arthur nodded, as Gaius and Gwen went ahead to prepare Arthur's rooms for treating him.
Morgana took Gwen's place without ceremony, paying no heed to the blood as she slung her brother's arm over her shoulder.
"This isn't right," she said. "This isn't right at all."
"So you said," Arthur mumbled from where his head hung low, now that no one else was around. "Come up with new material."
And Morgana grinned, as did Merlin – Arthur was still all right, if he could banter with Morgana through the pain.
"I was just testing to see how far gone you were. Apparently, not too badly. Who knows, maybe now you can move up to learning how to dress yourself."
"You're one to talk, barely able to don a dress without Gwen's help…" And so they bickered idly, falling back on an argument Merlin could likely recite word by word from heart.
When they reached Arthur's rooms, Merlin sighed in relief as he saw Gaius already having several poultice pastes ready, and Gwen laying down the last layer of towels on the bed, for the blood.
They lay Arthur gently on his stomach with his head on a pillow, and he hissed at the pain, before turning his head and, as soon as the door was locked, said to Merlin, "No magic. My father will be keeping a close eye on me, and will be suspicious."
Merlin swallowed and nodded. "I don't like it."
"And I do?" he retorted, dropping his head into his arms, folded around the pillow as they were. "If I heal too fast, or too well…"
Merlin nodded, before simply enchanting the water warm as Gwen started cleaning Arthur's wounds, while Morgana pushed and poked Merlin onto the bed, tugging away the pillow from under Arthur's head and replacing it with Merlin's lap.
Arthur didn't seem to mind, simply opting to wrap his arms around Merlin's waist and settle in, jerking in pain as Gwen cleaned up all the blood, leaning into Merlin's touch as the warlock stroked Arthur's hair, otherwise doing little beyond spelling the water warm and clean.
Morgana kept a tight, comforting grip on Arthur's hand as Gaius carefully applied the various herbs to Arthur's back, the strips of linen over each one, then the padding to soak up blood later – for there would be more.
Lastly, Merlin had to help Arthur up carefully for them to wrap the last of the bandages around his entire torso, while Gwen removed the bloodied towels. His face was deathly white and pinched in pain he would never actually admit to being in, and he sighed in relief when he was able to lay back down again, arms wrapping around Merlin again.
"I didn't foresee this," Morgana said. "I had a dream about an angel being burned at the stake, but not this."
"Arthur's never been particularly predictable," Merlin offered with a wry, fond smile. The rest smiled in return, while Arthur snorted into the flesh of Merlin's thigh.
"Well," Gaius said, as he gathered together his supplies, again. "These wounds are healing nicely, sire. Merlin, you know how to fix it if anything goes wrong. Good day."
And with an almost mourning look on his face as he glanced at Arthur's back, Gaius left the room. Gwen helped stoke the fire, as Arthur didn't seem ready to let go of Merlin just yet, and Morgana helped get Arthur's lower body under the covers, and she stopped by Arthur's head when she was done.
Reaching out and stroking his neck, she said quietly, "Next time…well, let's pray that there isn't a next time. Just…just get better, Arthur – I mean it."
Smiling dopily, Arthur nodded in agreement as Morgana left, Gwen shutting the door behind her, and soon, it was just Merlin, still running his fingers through Arthur's hair.
For a while, they remained there in silence, before Arthur mumbled, "It was worth it, you know."
Merlin frowned, fingers freezing for a moment, until Arthur made a noise in protest that prompted Merlin back into the action, almost entirely subconsciously.
"That man. You. All of it."
Merlin sighed. "Arthur, how many times do I have to tell you? I'll be all right."
"That man wasn't."
"He healed an entire court right in front of Uther's eyes."
"And you know that you would've done the same," Arthur said. He sighed. "I was glad that the man died – that it was him, and not you. I know I probably shouldn't, but…"
Merlin didn't respond.
"I…" Arthur sighed, burying his face into the inside of Merlin's thigh, taking a deep breath, then turning his head to crane his neck up at Merlin, again. "You're worth this."
"But it wasn't for me," Merlin said, sighing.
"When I'm king," Arthur said, laying his head back down. "I'm going to make this right. I'll lift the ban on magic, and make you Court Sorcerer…and Morgana will be Court Seer, or maybe Prophet? Prophesier? No, forget it, just Court Seer, that'll be good…"
Merlin smiled as Arthur continued his mumbled raving, leaning back against the prince's mountain of pillows.
Merlin looked down with an amused smirk – Arthur had caught him drifting off.
Arthur tugged one arm free and patted the space beside him on the bed, and Merlin complied, slipping under the covers so Arthur could drape himself atop Merlin, pressing his face into Merlin's neck, the boys wrapping their arms around each other as Arthur said, "Morgana was right – this isn't right."
"And you'll fix it when you're king," Merlin said. "For now, just focus on getting better, hm?"
"Fine," Arthur said. "And you'll help me fix it as Court Sorcerer…"
Merlin smiled and nodded, not even having to turn his head and look as his eyes flashed gold, instantly putting out all the candles while stoking the fire up a little to add to the warmth. As usual, Arthur growled at Merlin using his magic for this.
"I'm not even near the flames!" Merlin protested.
Arthur just huffed into Merlin's neck, and Merlin smiled fondly, bringing his hand back up to stroke Arthur's hair. "Bloody noble prat."
"You said tha', already," Arthur mumbled, being lulled to sleep by the quickly warming room and Merlin's attentions to his scalp.
"Well it bears saying again," Merlin said.
"You're one to talk," Arthur groused, and Merlin laughed as Arthur continued with, "Apparently, we're both a bit too noble for our own goods. But it's required of me! You just do it to try and kill me from terror every other week."
"If I'm to be Court Sorcerer, one day, shouldn't I hold myself to the same standards as that of high nobility?"
"Not if it gets you nearly killed all the time," Arthur said, before nipping at the skin below his lips.
Merlin smiled as Arthur's lips tickled, slightly, before saying, "Ah, but see, I never get actually killed, just nearly killed."
Arthur grunted and nipped at Merlin again, "There isn't much of a difference."
"…erm, Arthur? Dead versus alive is a big difference."
"Not in how much you terrify me when you do something stupid," Arthur growled.
"That's just payback for all the stupid things you get into," Merlin said, tone serious despite the playful words.
Arthur scoffed and used what little leverage he had to pull Merlin closer, tightening his grip and curling his hands around Merlin's thin frame even more.
"…so we're both idiots?" Merlin tried a moment later, and Arthur laughed.
"I guess so. I think Morgana may have a point in the possibility of both of us getting ourselves killed before I'm king."
"I thought that was Gwen?"
"No, she thinks we'll kill each other before I'm king."
Another laugh, a hiss as the laughter pulled at Arthur's back, and then more chuckles as he calmed down. "I guess…"
"Considering how good Gaius and Uther are at their jobs, we'll have a lot of time to think through these things," Merlin offered. "Let's just make it to your kingship and work our way from there."
Arthur sighed, nodded, and craned his neck as Merlin leaned down and pressed their lips together, sealing their promises with a kiss.